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Blog: Fortress of Ananuri

The 17th century fortress of Ananuri is part of the Tentative List of Georgia. It was the castle and seat of the Dukes of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty which ruled the area from the 13th century. It lies some 70km north of the capital Tbilisi, along the Military Highway that leads up to Vladikavkaz in Russia. On the first day of my trip to Georgia I visited Ananuri as part of a full day tour along that 213km long historical road.

Ananuri as seen from the bridge

When we left Tbilisi we got caught in a small traffic jam, all because of scores of tourists wanting to go up that same way. Tourism is really booming in Georgia since a few years: people come mainly from the neighbouring countries such as Azerbaijan and Russia, but also from India and the Gulf States (or perhaps they are Indians who work in the Gulf).

After an hour’s drive the fortress of Ananuri comes into sight. Seen from the bridge by which you approach it, it is really picture-perfect. The fortified complex consists of a typical Georgian Orthodox church with a cone-shaped dome, surrounded by crenellated walls. There are a few other towers as well, including one with a stepped pyramidal roof of Svanetian type, and a smaller church. These spires and domes are all adding to the spectacle.

To be able to enter the fortress we first have to go through the tourist market in the parking lot, where they sell stuff that we are about to encounter along the road all day: mainly knitted socks, sheep wool caps and honey.

Carved north entrance to the main church

The courtyard of the fort is almost completely filled by the large church. Later on this trip I will probably get enough of it, but on this first day I am still enthusiastic about entering a Georgian Orthodox church. As a female you have to wear a long skirt and a headscarf, which garments can be borrowed at the entrance. The church consists of only one space and is quite sober except for a number of 17th century murals including a Last Judgement.

We also climb the highest tower of the fort. The fortress was the scene of numerous battles, and this square one was the last tower to hold out against the enemies. It is a hot day and the stairs are steep, which finally makes me decide to skip the planned hike later in the day to the Gergeti monastery which would involve 7km of climbing.

Last Judgement mural

Ananuri is well worth visiting as a stop on your journey up the Georgian Military Highway. This is still the most important route between Georgia and Russia: it has the only border crossing between the two countries that is still open today. There’s a lot of traffic from trucks, and also roaming cows are a frequently recurring obstacle. It took us 5 hours from Tbilisi to end at the last major town on the Georgian side, Stepantsminda. From there we visited another splendidly located monument, the Gergeti monastery.

Published 16 June 2018

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Blog: Viewable from another WHS

Over the years, we have discovered quite a number of Trivial Connections between WHS. One of these is Viewable from another WHS: which WHS can be seen from standing in/on/at another WHS? The view should be achievable as part of "normal" touristic viewing (so no use of drones....). And it excludes Contiguous sites (which can obviously be seen across their mutual boundary) and Exact locations inscribed twice (that would be too easy of course). So far, we have been able to find 16 of these viewpoints: from towers, volcanoes, hilltops or by just looking down a street.

Table Mountain NP seen from Robben Island

It is not necessary true that if WHS A can be seen from WHS B, B as well can be seen from A. Visibility often depends on a bit of height (is there a tower to climb?), or the size of the WHS. Full mountains or volcanoes are obviously easy to see from afar.

The combinations of WHS where A can be seen from B and vice versa, are:

Agra Fort & Taj Mahal

Cape Floral Region (Table Mountain NP) & Robben Island

Teide NP & Garajonay NP

An additional one might be (but is unconfirmed) the Works of Antoni Gaudí & the Hospital de Sant Pau in Barcelona: Sagrada Familia can apparently be seen from the grounds inside the entrance of the Hospital de Sant Pau - looking down the Avenida de Gaudi which links the two. But is the Hospital visible as well when you stand on the other side of this Avenida in front of the Sagrada Familia?

Teide volcano seen from Garajonay

Some sites even have made a small-scale tourist attraction of this WH related bit of trivia. A few weeks ago I visited Hainich National Park, one of the many locations of the Beech Forests WHS. This was to break the long ride home from the Erzgebirge, but also because I was curious about the “Wartburgblick”. This is the viewpoint inside one of the Beech Forest’s core zones from where you can see Wartburg Castle. It can be reached via a small detour from one of the trails in the forest. I choose the Sperbersgrundweg (5.5 km). There is also the interesting sounding 'World Heritage Trail' - that's 9,5 km long.

The path in general is well marked with wooden signs, and the turnoff for the Wartburgblick is also easy to spot. From that point, the castle lies 15 kilometers away. With a bit of effort, it can be seen with the naked eye. The afforestation here is less than in the surrounding area, because in communist times this was used as a shooting range for Soviet soldiers and a stretch of forest was cleared. Now the forest is slowly growing back and maybe some day will obscure the whole distant view to Wartburg Castle.

Wartburg Castle, seen from Hainich NP

Do you know any more examples? Maybe the WHS within walking distance can provide some inspiration.

Published 9 June 2018

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Responses to Viewable from another WHS
Zoe Sheng (15 June 2018)

Mt. Fuji can be seen from Tokyo but maybe not from the Museum of Western Art even the roofs, I wonder if you can spot it from other WHS in Japan.

Ian Cade (14 June 2018)

On those ones in London, I’ve yet to be able to confirm them (tried a fair few times in person and online).
The Tower of London is actually rather small when compared to the buildings around it and as it is the central point that makes it harder. I’ve never been able to pick it out from Greenwhich even though it feels like you should be able to.

There are a few too many buildings on the South Bank blocking Westminster and Greenwhich. But I’ve never been up any of Westminster’s towers which would give the best opportunity.

Solivagant (13 June 2018)

Indeed - Google Street view from the Gloriette provides a lovely photo on a fine day across to St Stephens Cathedral in the distance!!

Solivagant (13 June 2018)

"For those who have been to the Gambia, I'm curious. Is the Saloum Delta (on the border of Senegal and the Gambia) visible from Banjul? If so, it seems like it should also be visible from at least Fort Bullen and possibly the Six Gun Battery which are part of the Kunta Kinteh Island World Heritage Site."
I have been to Gambia but I don't think that having been there is likely to make much difference to this.
Ignoring heat haze etc the furthest a person who is 1.7m tall can see (i.e to the sea level horizon) is 4.7kms. At 30m high it is 19.6kms. Fort Bullen is around 14m high - without doing the math lets just take half the difference = c15kms. Fort Bullen to the furthest south point of Saloum across the sea (i.e with nothing intervening) to sand banks which can be assumed to be at sea level is, according to Google maps is 12.3kms. So - IN THEORY with no loss of visibility one could see it (and vv)!!

Solivagant (13 June 2018)

From the end of the Grand Canal in Toulouse you should be able to see the Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Jaques and probably the Tower of Saint-Sernin"
The best way to check these "ideas" if people don't have a photo for proof is to use Google Street view.
Using this I can confirm that from the banks of the Canal Du Midi along the Boulevarde de Minimes in Toulouse it IS possible to look down the Rue de la Concorde and see the tower of the Basilica of Saint-Sernin (Route of Compostela) - even through the heavily leaved trees when the Street view was done!! The view is slightly better from the southern Boulevarde Matabiau side but you are not then looking across the Canal and I don't know how far each side of the canal is still "core zone"!

Solivagant (13 June 2018)

"While in one of the rooftops of Yazd, the Persian Garden of Dowlat Abad (which might already be in its buffer zone?)"
I see that this has been added as "viewable from another WHS - In fact Dowlat Abad IS part of the Inscribed site of Yazd (we have already connected it as a "site inscribed twice or more"

Caspar Dechmann (13 June 2018)

From the Ende of the Grand Canal in Toulouse you Seouls be able tos er the Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Jaques and probably the Tower of Saint-Sernin

Caspar Dechmann (13 June 2018)

Beffrois are hot candidates: in amiens you can definitively see the Cathedral. The kortrijk belfry should be viewable from the beguinage. From some windows of the platin-Moretus the Antwerpen cathedral should be seen. The beguinage in Mechelen, Lier, and St. Truiden are further away from the respective beffrois so only an inspection in place could make sure

Caspar Dechmann (13 June 2018)

I imagine that Westminster and the Tower of London with their respective towers should be viewable. Possibly also Greenwich could be a candidate since from Greenwich Park you have a fabulous view over London as shown by Turner

Caspar Dechmann (13 June 2018)

From the Schönbrunn Gloriette you can definitively see the outline of the “erste Bezirk” of Vienna

Juha Sjoeblom (12 June 2018)

I had to check from my photos and yes, the garden of Chehel Sotun is viewable from the Ali Qapu pavilion (Meidan Emam).

And as improbable as it sounds, Tallinn can actually be seen from Helsinki on clear days. So it should be possible to see the tower of St. Olaf's Church from the higher places of Suomenlinna. There is a lot of discussion about that on web pages because some people scientifically explain that it shouldn't be possible. But I have heard that many people have seen it and there are also photos. But this could be a bit extreme example.

Jay T (12 June 2018)

For those who have been to the Gambia, I'm curious. Is the Saloum Delta (on the border of Senegal and the Gambia) visible from Banjul? If so, it seems like it should also be visible from at least Fort Bullen and possibly the Six Gun Battery which are part of the Kunta Kinteh Island World Heritage Site.

David Berlanda (11 June 2018)

Some of the Medici Villas situated in the Florence municipality (on the surrounding hills) and the Villa of Fiesole can be clearly spotted from the higher points of the historic centre of Florence and from most of them there are beautiful views on Florence

David Berlanda (11 June 2018)

Costiera Amalfitana can be seen from the coast of Cilento National Park and the other way around

Els Slots (11 June 2018)

Rome & Vatican are contiguous - that does not count

Philipp Peterer (11 June 2018)

How about Rome and Vatican City?

Jay T (10 June 2018)

If I'm reading the map correctly, the inscribed section of Paris, Banks of the Seine just barely does not include the Saint Jacques Tower from the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, which would make each one visible to the other.

Els Slots (10 June 2018)

"from the minaret of the Friday Mosque of Esfahan, the Meidan-e Shah can be sighted" - I don't think one can climb it (except when you're the muezzin), true?

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero (10 June 2018)

Also, while not something that is not easily open to the public: from the minaret of the Friday Mosque of Esfahan, the Meidan-e Shah can be sighted. The converse is also the same.

Els Slots (10 June 2018)

Thanks Bernard!

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero (10 June 2018)

Sigiriya can be seen from Dambulla. While in one of the rooftops of Yazd, the Persian Garden of Dowlat Abad (which might already be in its buffer zone?) can be spotted. From Kandy's Asgiriya monastery (key part of the inscription), Knuckles range (Central Highlands WHS) can be seen from afar as well.

Blog: Gdansk - Town of Memory and Freedom

When I told my colleagues that I was going to Gdansk for a long weekend, the conversation quickly veered off to Lech Walesa. We hadn’t heard from him in a long time. Had he died already? A quick Wikipedia search turned out he is alive and kicking, working the lucrative lecture circuit in the USA. His hometown is on Poland’s Tentative List under the label of Town of Memory and Freedom. Reminders to various periods in Gdansk’s history, starting from the Hanseatic era, are brought together under this flag. During my stay I mainly focused on the part called the Gdańsk Shipyard associated with the emergence of Solidarity movement, together with the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers.

Dutch-style Renaissance architecture in Gdansk

To get to know that area and hear more about this period plus its current impact, I joined one of the daily “free” Solidarity walking tours. It’s a popular tour, over 30 people showed up from all over Scandinavia, Russia and Western Europe. We did not tour the old town which resembles Amsterdam without the canals. We explored its edges. We stopped for example at an unsightly parking lot, in front of the police station. It was here in 1970 that for the first time Lech Walesa's name appeared in the books after a demonstration.

The guided walk puts places into the spotlight that on your own you would just pass by. We saw the first nightclub where rock music was played, a statue of a Polish king who beat the Turks and the former communist era dollar shop Pewex. The guide portrayed that the inhabitants of Gdansk always were a rebellious lot, and especially resented the Soviet influence. Apparently there’s quite a Gdansk versus Warsaw animosity too.

Fiercely Catholic they are as well. We made a quick stop at the Brigitta Church, which served as a parish church for the shipyard workers. Over the last 17 years, people have been saving for an altar made of expensive amber - since last December it is completely finished. In front of the church is a statue of Pope John Paul II, who is perceived as the symbol of the resistance of the Catholic Church to communism.

Medieval watermill, later a Pewex

The main goal of the tour of course is the shipyard itself, which lies some 20 minutes’ walk outside the city center. It has been turned into a real pilgrimage place, with a series of monuments in memory of Solidarity and the shipyard workers. They include:

  • A large memorial in memory of the victims of a bloody police action in 1970, after a strike by the shipyard workers against a sudden increase in food prices.
  • The entrance gate to shipyard number 2, a more informal monument. It is a reconstruction of the fence that was destroyed by a tank in 1981. In the kiosk next to it you can buy souvenirs such as lighters and mugs with the Solidarity logo.
  • The European Solidarity Center. It is designed in a brutalist style, it looks like a rusty ship in the yard. They hold exhibitions about the struggle for freedom in Europe, and apparently Walesa still has an office here.
  • The former training center of the shipyard workers, possibly the greatest tribute to the history of Solidarity. There is a photo exhibition, and a model where you can see how the yard looked like at the time of the protests. The story ends here with the round table conference and free elections in 1989.

Replica of 'the' gateway to the shipyard

Despite its undeniable role in European history, Gdansk probably will never become a WHS. It has received a rejection advice twice from ICOMOS. The last time it was because the nomination focused too much on the intangible values. I agree with some of the other reviewers though that this is a much more interesting and exquisitely restored Hanseatic city than similar sites that have been made a WHS in the past.

Published 2 June 2018

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Blog: WHS #661: Malbork Castle

Malbork Castle was the headquarters of the Teutonic Order's crusader state. The castle had both a religious and a political function: here lived the Grand Master and the daily management of the Order, and about 3,000 knights. The castle was built at the end of the 13th century, and was expanded ever further. It is entirely made of brick, and according to unconfirmed sources this is the largest area of any castle and/or the largest brick building in the world. I went to see it on a half-day trip from Gdansk.

Castle Gate

My visit was on a sunny Saturday morning, and because I was expecting crowds I had purchased an entrance ticket online beforehand (I did so as well with all train tickets on this trip). I arrived at the Malbork train station at 8.45 a.m., and from there I had a 15 minute walk to be at the gates at the opening hour of 9 a.m.. Local authorities have not bothered to sign the way to the castle, but it lies on the right side from the station and then straight ahead until you see the red towers on the horizon. From the train you’ll already have a tantalizing view of it.

At the entrance I picked up my pre-booked audio tour and headphones, and went ‘in’. If you want to save money or are in a hurry, you can also choose to view only the exterior: access to the complex within the walls is free, and there is plenty to see there. It consists of 3 separate parts: the High Castle, the Middle Castle and the Fore Castle. They are surrounded by canals and different rows of defensive walls.

The Great Refectory, Middle Castle

The audio tour will guide you through the entire complex. It’s a ‘smart’ device, it acknowledges where you stand and then tells you what’s to see and how to continue. There is a story in every room - at a given moment it seems like there is no end to it. After the guide led me to the courtyard for the third time after 1.5 hour and stated 'now we are halfway', I decided to quicken the pace from then on. I skipped some rooms and exhibitions (the amber museum has some fine pieces, but I can do without a large collection of weapons) to keep my visit at about 2.5 hours.

One of the most beautiful spaces within the castle grounds is St. Mary's Church. It is entered via the Golden Gate - a door framed with colourful figures with a golden glow. This church has been badly damaged during the end of the Second World War, but in recent years they have continued to restore it towards the original state and in 2016 it has reopened.

The recently restored St. Mary’s Church

The castle derives its OUV partly from its restoration and conservation methods. Although it was substantially damaged during World War II, it could be restored by using “the abundant and meticulous records of those responsible for restoration and conservation works in the 19th and early 20th centuries” (including Karl Friedrich Schinkel). 

Published 26 May 2018

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Blog: WHS #660: Torun

The medieval city of Torun is a small, well-preserved trading town along the Vistula river. I really enjoyed my stay there, and have been thinking since what the attraction was. A major reason is that – despite its considerable size of 200,000 inhabitants – it lies too far off the beaten track for the weekend getaway and stag party crowd (which Gdansk and so many other cities in Central and Eastern Europe have to endure). It still is more a destination for Polish school trips than for foreign tourists.

St. George Guild House

Although it lies only 168km south of Gdansk, it takes significant time to get to Torun by public transport from there. The fastest trains take 2.5 hours, including a change half way. These are not too frequent however, plus it is wise to pre-book them as seats are reserved and do sell out. On the return trip I got stranded at Torun’s railway station because of a delay of 53(!) minutes, which also caused missing my connection. In the end it took me 5 hours to get back to Gdansk. So going only for a day trip from Gdansk is possible but it is a gamble.

Fortunately I stayed for the night. The WHS zone comprises 3 parts: the Old Town, the New Town, and the ruins of the Teutonic Castle. On my first evening I walked around the Old Town at ease. It does not have a real ‘medieval’ atmosphere, 80% of the buildings seem to date from the late 19th or 20th century. But the buildings of medieval origin that remain are all true masterpieces of the so-called 'brick gothic'. Red bricks alternate with stones of a different colour or plaster. And that’s a very pretty sight in the evening or morning light.

St. Mary's church

The next morning I further explored the city. First I went to the ruins of the Teutonic Order Castle. The Knights tried to conquer and convert the pagan Prussia from this strategic point. Torun at the time (13th century) was situated in the buffer zone between Poland and Prussia - if you look at the map now it's pretty deep in Poland, roughly in the middle of the country. The famous fort turned out to be a lot smaller than I had thought. There are only a few foundations left after the citizens expelled the Order in 1454 and burned down the fort.

West of the fort lies the 'New' Town. This is almost as old as the Old Town, it dates back to the 13th century as well and was built when more buildings were needed for artisans and industry. Both former towns have now grown together. Here in the New Town lies the most beautiful church, at least seen from the outside: the St. James Church. This too is made entirely of bricks. Restoration works are currently going on, so I could not get in. The same issue applied to the Copernicus House.

Row of houses in a side street

A final bit of trivia: I had Torun connected to the European Route of Brick Gothic. But when I checked the organization’s website in preparation for this trip, Torun was not (or not anymore) there as a member. This also applied to Riga and Vilnius. Only German and a few Danish and Polish cities are included now. Sometime after 2012, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia seem to have left this network.

Published 19 May 2018

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Blog: WHC 2018: Žatec, Town of Hops

Žatec – the Hops Town is up for inclusion in the World Heritage List in 2018. I’ve not been able to find any information online yet whether the ICOMOS advice has come out positive or negative. I put the Bohemian town on my itinerary of a long weekend trip to the German/Czech border region anyway. Žatec lies only about an hour’s drive away from Marienberg in the Ore Mountains, where I was staying.

18th century Holy Trinity Column in Žatec

I visited on a Saturday afternoon, and already on the way to it I was surprised that ‘everything’ was closed: shops had their doors firmly shut, and I was happy that I had filled up the tank of my car in Germany as even gas stations looked doubtful. Arriving at the central square of Žatec, it was easy to park there as no one was around as well! I had expected terraces full of beer drinking locals and tourists (the weather was very sunny and warm for late April), just as in most Czech towns that I had visited before. Only after some effort I found a pizzeria open for a late lunch.

Žatec advertises itself as ‘The Hops Town’, which isn’t the same as ‘The Beer Town’: the word “beer” does not even feature in the official T list description. What you will learn from a visit is how hops actually looks like (I had not seen it before) and what they do with it before it ends up in the beer. The industry of hop growing and processing in Žatec goes back to the Middle Ages.

Saaz hops

The best place to learn more about the history is at the Hop Museum. This lies just around the corner from the quite tacky Hop and Beer Temple with its tower. The museum is located in a former hop storage and packing plant (a huge building). At the entrance I received a print-out of a few pages in English, explaining the objects shown across the 3 floors. Most spectacular I found the exhibition about hop-growing on poles – hop plants actually look a bit like vines, but taller. Until 1957, it was common to grow them attached to constructions with meters high wooden poles in ‘hop pole gardens’.

The wealth that came with the blossoming hops industry also led to rich residential and communal buildings. A nice row of those at the elongated main square looks recently revamped or repainted.

Although there is some signposting, I found it difficult to find out which places can be visited. They are scattered around town among lots of not so interesting places. Roaming around the empty streets I stumbled upon the old synagogue – while peeking in, it looked in such bad repair that it might be a hazard to enter. But there is actually an exhibition inside about the Jewish history of Žatec. The synagogue itself was badly damaged already during the Kristallnacht (1938) and never used again. I was unexpectedly quite moved by the visit, as the state of the building makes it seem that it all happened yesterday.

Chimneys of the historic hop drying houses

After so many WHS associated with grapevine growing, it would be a welcome change to have one about hops too. I find it a pity actually that Žatec has not gone for a cultural landscape approach, as hops growing is still practiced around town as well as the rest of the production process. The current proposal possibly focuses too much on the historic buildings, which may come across as yet another Central European town center with a row of colourful houses.

Published 12 May 2018

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Blog: Ore Mountains

In the east of Germany and just across the border in the northwest of Czechia lies a region called the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge/Krušnohoří in the respective local languages). Its name comes from the ores (silver, copper, tin, zinc) that have been mined here over the centuries. The Germans and Czechs have been active since 2015 to secure a shared spot for this area at the World Heritage List, and they will possibly submit a revised nomination in 2019. The proposal will consist of no less than 61 ‘component parts’ or locations.

Center of Olbernhau

At the German side, I checked out 3 locations in the Marienberg Mining Area: the city center of Marienberg, a reconstructed horse-driven mill in the Lauta Mining Landscape and the Grünthal Liquation Hut Complex in Olbernhau.

Marienberg’s distinguishing feature is its large city square, designed in the style of the Italian Renaissance. I noticed little of further interest in the city centre, but I did pay a visit to the regional museum which is housed in a massive former granary from the early 19th century. The employees on duty seemed a bit shocked that I wanted to visit. The exhibition unfortunately mainly focuses on the traditional crafts and daily life in the region, not so much on the mining.

I can be brief about the second location on my list: the Pferdegöpel auf dem Rudolphschacht (Lauta) cannot be visited without a tour, and I had to wait another hour for one to start. So I drove straight on to the last location: Grünthal in Olbernhau. This immediately felt a lot better: a fast flowing river runs through the valley (always handy for the hydropower), and there is a lot of forest around (and therefore wood for the factory). Via a stone gate one enters a separate neighbourhood: this was the site where metals were extracted from ores. An old labourer's house and a small mining museum can be visited. At the museum I was put in front of a 25min video that showed its production process (including a lot of nostalgic GDR footage). From 1537, silver and later also copper were extracted and processed (to coins, for example). Later the Grünthal factory specialized in tin-plates, until it closed in 1990.

Svornost mine, Jachymov

The next day I drove across the mountains from Marienberg to the Czech part of this mining region. The first town after the (hardly distinguishable) border is called Jachymov. Jachymov has known mining since the 16th century: it grew to 18,000 inhabitants at the time, now there are only 2,700. At first the growth was based on silver, but since the 19th century uranium mining is typical of Jachymov. The remains of the old mines are still used to extract the radioactive radon for use in the local spa.

During the communist period, political prisoners worked as forced labourers in these uranium mines. In memory of them, an 8.5 km long trail has been designed along the remains of the mining industry and the prisoner barracks. It passes the still functioning Svornost mine and the mining open air museum (unfortunately closed until the summer season). The path continues through the forest, and I found it pretty demanding due to the large differences in altitude. Halfway I decided to take a shortcut back to Jachymov. Jachymov’s story is an interesting one anyway, and I found it the highlight of my trip to the Ore Mountains.

Along the Themed Trail 'Jáchymov Hell'

An inscription of the Ore Mountains would tick a lot of existing Connections, such as Uranium mining (Jachymov), Mints (Olbernhau, Jachymov), Ideal City (Marienberg) and Thirty Years' War (the Saigerhütte Grünthal in Olbernhau was raided by Swedish troops). Some of the proposed locations are interesting enough, but overall there are way too many of them scattered around a large area. Other reviewers have hinted that the tourist friendliness in the region could be improved as well, and that was also my experience. Especially after I just enjoyed the Omani hospitality this was a disappointment - as an independent and curious WH traveller, you’re almost seen as an intruder.

Published 5 May 2018

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Responses to Ore Mountains
Jay T (5 May 2018)

After spending a pleasant couple of days visiting mining heritage sites in the UK, I have to wonder how many more World Heritage Sites are necessary until European mining heritage is property represented on the list.

Blog: Tips for travelling to the Gulf

Early April I spent two weeks travelling through the Gulf states of Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Oman was the expected highlight, and I was happy that I allocated 10 days there. After having visited Bahrain in 2011 at the start of my RTW trip, I now have the Arab states of the Persian Gulf covered reasonably well (Saudi Arabia and Qatar can wait).

Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to the Gulf states as a World Heritage Traveller.

Omani men wearing the dishdasha and kuma (cap)

1. This is easy comfort

These 3 countries are among the easiest that I have ever travelled in: they are friendly, clean, safe and efficient. They have good infrastructure (the Dubai metro is exemplary), and English is widely spoken. Large scale immigration has blessed them with Lebanese and Indian restaurants, adding lots of international flavour to the traditional cuisine of rice and chicken. For Kuwait and Oman most people will need a visa, but that can be arranged online beforehand.

2. Accept that the WHS are not its best sights

Looking at the general appreciation of the WHS in Oman and the UAE, they currently rank below 3 stars on average in our Community Ranking. Only Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn has a 3.25 out of 5. I do agree with this rating overall, but that does not mean everything is bland. The forts and aflaj of Oman are among its highlights, the examples chosen to represent them are a bit doubtful though. Bahla certainly isn’t the most interesting fort: better contenders are Rostaq or Jabreen (which I did not visit, but it features on the Omani Starbucks mug!). For the aflaj, I suggest Birkat Al-Mouz or Misfat Al Abrayeen. Other must see sights in the country include the Sultan Qaboos mosque in Muscat and the Wadi al-Shab.

Wadi al-Shab, natural highlight

3. Don’t expect much joie de vivre

As pretty and comfortable Oman is, there is something lacking: a certain liveliness or ‘joie de vivre’ which for example is omnipresent in Iran. It may be caused by the oppressive heat (already above 30 degrees all day during my visit in the first weeks of April) or the conservative society, but the Omani seem not go out much except for the occasional visit to a McDonalds restaurant in an airconditioned mall.

4. Visiting the Gulf isn’t as expensive as you would think

The high standard of living in these countries isn’t reflected in high prices, especially Oman is good value for money. The only thing is that you really need a car to cover ground, so that adds up to the costs. But fortunately gas costs little, entrance fees are often absent, good dinners can be had for 5-6 EUR and I had not trouble finding hotels in the 45-80 EUR a night price range. Flight prices from Europe are competitive as well.

Mausoleum of Mohammed Bin Ali in Dhofar

5. Add a bit of variation to your itinerary

I combined Oman with Kuwait and the UAE, and to me that combination gave the trip an edge beyond ‘just’ visiting Oman. Kuwait has a certain quirkiness and I would not have mind to stayed another night. The UAE are worth a visit when you’re in the area (but do not warrant a separate trip in itself in my opinion), and I enjoyed my day trips to Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

Published 2 May 2018

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Blog: Dubai Creek

The main question about this TWHS is: Does something like ‘Old Dubai’ still exist? Dubai only developed independently from Abu Dhabi from 1833 onwards. The origin of the city lies at Khor Dubai, the saltwater creek that flows through the city. From its small-scale port, pearl fishermen departed to dive off the coast and trade was driven with Asia and East Africa. The multicultural trading city with its skyscrapers that we now know dates from the seventies of the 20th century at the earliest.

Cargo ship at Dubai Creek

On my last day in the Gulf region I spent a few hot hours looking for the old core of Dubai. A WHS proposal for this zone has already been met with a ‘Rejection’ advice twice, leaving the international advisors in despair. The course of the creek through Dubai has often artificially been changed, extra land has been won and old neighbourhoods have been demolished. Getting it registered is a hopeless mission according to the advising committee, but hopes have been kept alive by the WHC which overruled ICOMOS to Deferral (2014) and Referral (2017) respectively. And the Emirates will not give up.

I made a list of the named locations in both evaluation documents, and tried to find them on the ground using google maps and This mission ended in a lot of searching for the remnants of old neighbourhoods like Al Fahidi and Bastakia, and the Souk al Kabeer. The 'largest Hindu temple of Dubai' must be in this area as well - but where? I did not manage to locate it.

Remains from the city wall (ca. 1800)

It turns out that a completely reconstructed 'new' old neighbourhood is being built on the banks of Dubai Creek. Partly they are still working on it (even on Friday, the 'Islamic Sunday'), but for the most part the buildings in old style are already standing. This neighbourhood is dotted with museums, cultural centres, restaurants, boutiques and other tourist attractions. Much is not open yet. If you look very closely, you can still find fragments of something really old, such as a few meters of the old city wall.

The neighbourhood is now particularly popular with the large numbers of Asian workers who keep Dubai running. Only 15% of the 2.7 million inhabitants is a citizen of the Emirates. The rest comes mainly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Iran and the Philippines. On Fridays they can enjoy each other's company here near the river, take a boat trip to the other bank for 1 dirham or eat an ice cream.

Reconstructed neigbourhood Al Shindagha

I found Dubai in general very touristy, and to not offer much beyond shopping and cheesy / overpriced attractions. It felt like Kuala Lumpur without a soul. I cannot understand why some people choose to spend a whole week there. If you want an easy encounter with Arab culture close to Europe, please go for Morocco which has formidable WHS (and they will find you a camel to ride if you're adamant to have this 'experience').

Published 28 April 2018

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Blog: WHS #659: Cultural Sites of Al Ain

Al Ain is the second city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, a pretty large one with over 750,000 inhabitants. It actually lies closer to Dubai than to its own capital, Abu Dhabi. I had somewhat underestimated these distances during my trip planning, and also wanted to see the recently opened Louvre museum and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. So I cut my visit to Al Ain short to the Al Ain Oasis and National Museum to fit it all into a day trip from Dubai.

Sultan Fort

The oasis and national museum comprise only 1 out of the 17 inscribed Cultural Sites of Al Ain. Both places are very conveniently located next to the bus station of Al Ain, which is served every 30 minutes or so by comfortable direct buses from Dubai’s Al Ghubaiba Bus Station. The oasis is easy to see near the bus station, and the national museum is signposted.

I started at the museum, which charges a 3 dirham entry fee. At 0.66 EUR this is only a nominal sum, comparable to the fees I paid at similar sites in Oman. I guess these public museums are heavily subsidized by the government. I never encountered many visitors, often I was the only one. This museum is quite interesting, displaying mainly the archaeological findings (lots of pottery) from the various Al Ain locations such as Hilli.

I peeked into the old Sultan Fort next door as well, but they were busy with maintenance inside and I don’t think there’s much to see.

Decorated box found at Hili, on display at the Al Ain National Museum

At the entrance gate to Al Ain Oasis I found a friendly soldier standing guard, with a pile of leaflets in front of him to hand out. Al Ain was the first venue during 2 weeks in the Gulf where I received a pretty ticket & a brochure worth keeping. It includes a map of the oasis, but it’s not terribly large anyway and there are signs at every intersection.

The palms in the forest supposedly are watered by a falaj irrigation system like the ones that I saw in Oman. But here no water was flowing through the irrigation channels - it would not surprise me if they keep the area green by watering with a garden hose. For the birds in the neighbourhood, so many trees together are a godsend and I heard many of them singing.

One can walk all the way across the oasis to the Al Ain Palace Museum, the Eco Centre and other interpretative elements. I turned right about half way, so I ended up near the bus station again. It's a pleasant walk but not exactly exciting.

Al Ain Oasis

This site lies only about 185 kilometers from Bat and Al-Ayn in Oman, where I was the week before, and it has a lot in common with it. The same is true for the Aflaj irrigation systems. Al Ain is much more urban though and less romantic than the 2 Omani WHS.

Finally a warning for future daytrippers: I did make it to Abu Dhabi in the end, but had not enough time left to see both the Louvre and the Grand Mosque. I choose the Louvre, and only saw the Mughal-extravaganza mosque from a distance. A one way trip by bus between Dubai and Al Ain or Abu Dhabi easily takes 2 hours, and the bus between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi even needed a very slow 2.5 hours.

Published 25 April 2018

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Responses to WHS #659: Cultural Sites of Al Ain
Jay T (26 April 2018)

Sorry you missed the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi, but that is a great reason to go back! I'm surprised there was no water in the irrigation canals at Al Ain; not all of them had water when I visited, but some of them did. I wonder if they ever employ water rationing.

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